Unpacking the Iggerot: Malevolent Music

Moshe Kurtz Tradition Online | June 6, 2024

Read more about “Unpacking the Iggerot” and see the archive of all past columns.

When Music Becomes Malevolent / Iggerot Moshe, E.H., vol. 1, #96

Summarizing the Iggerot

In 1959, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was informed that a popular Jewish singer’s reputation had gone awry. His crime: Performing concerts to mixed audiences of boys and girls. However, this particular musician (unnamed in Iggerot Moshe, but widely understood to be Reb Shlomo Carlebach), was wildly popular and his songs were performed by bands at weddings and various forms of Jewish functions. How should we relate to the music composed by such an individual in light of his less-than Orthodox conduct? (This was long before more troubling accusations came to light, which we will not adjudicate here.)

R. Feinstein posited that so long as the music this singer composed was published prior to his problematic conduct, his later waywardness would not retroactively invalidate the status of his music due to this person’s hezkat kashrut or presumption of innocence. He supports this assertion by pointing to statements in Rabbinic literature by Yohanan Kohen Gadol (see Yadayim 4:69, Ma’aser Sheni 5:15, and Sota 9:10) and Elisha ben Avuya (Avot 4:20) prior to their respective heretical transformations. Moreover, Rambam (Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 6:8) rules that while a Torah scroll written by a heretic must be burned, if his apostasy post-dates the writing, the Torah scroll remains halakhically intact.

R. Feinstein further argues that the case of this singer may have further grounds for leniency. Perhaps the concern vis-a-vis a heretic writing a Torah scroll is not a universal issue of perpetuating a heretic’s reputation, but rather a narrower imperative to ensure that the dignity of a Torah scroll not be compromised by association with such an individual. It is not forbidden, R. Feinstein points out, to refer to medicines, machines, and other inventions by the names of the wicked people who developed them. Likewise, if this singer’s lyrics are from the Bible or Rabbinic literature, the only factor he actually introduced were the tunes. Since tunes have no inherent sanctity, they are not susceptible to becoming banned even if they are composed after the musician strayed from the ways of the Torah.

A final mitigating factor is that until now we have been operating on the premise that this musician is analogous to a heretic. However, this entertainer’s transgression was not one of denying God or His Torah. According to the information presented to R. Feinstein, this person’s sole infraction was that he performed in front of a mixed audience of young men and women. Such a person is certainly not sinning out of spite or anti-religious principle (mumar le-hakhis). At most, he is a mumar le-teiavon le-davar ehad, one who disregards a specific commandment out of frivolity or lack of mental fortitude. On this basis, R. Feinstein concludes that even if this musician composed his songs subsequent to engaging in problematic acts that even a ba’al nefesh need not be concerned.

Connecting the Iggerot

Many of the questions R. Feinstein addressed regarding music, such as men listening to women’s voices(O.H., vol. 1, #26; Y.D., vol. 2, #75), music during Sefira (Y.D., vol. 2, #137) and, of course, our aforementioned responsum, all presuppose that it is permissible to listen to music in general. In an earlier responsum (O.H., vol. 1, #166) on the matter, he suggests that perhaps outside of religious contexts one should not listen to music all year round! The Talmud relates the following:

They sent [the following question] to Mar Ukva: From where do we [derive that] song is forbidden [in the present, following the destruction of the Temple]? He scored [parchment] and wrote to them: “Rejoice not, O Israel, to exultation, like the peoples” (Hosea 9:1). [The Gemara asks:] And let him send them [a response] from here: “They do not drink wine with a song; strong drink is bitter to them who drink it” (Isaiah 24:9) [indicating that song is no longer allowed].

[The Gemara answers:] If [he had answered] by [citing] that [verse], I would say that this matter [applies only to] instrumental music, [in accordance with the previous verse: “The mirth of tabrets ceases, the noise of them who rejoice ends, the joy of the harp ceases” (Isaiah 24:8)]; however, vocal [song is] permitted. [Therefore, Mar Ukva] teaches us [that all types of song are forbidden] (Gittin 7a).

Rashi (s.v. Zimra) interprets this ban on vocal and instrumental music as applying strictly within a frivolous context such as a tavern. Tosafot (s.v. Zimra Mina Lan de-Assur) support this interpretation based on a Mishna which states that “when the Sanhedrin was dissolved, song ceased from the taverns” (Sota 48a). The Tosafists further add that overindulgence in music, such as arising and falling asleep to a musical performance would be problematic as well. However, in non-frivolous or over-indulgent contexts both vocal and instrumental music would be permissible.

On the other hand, Rambam (Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 5:14) writes that instrumental music is forbidden in any context. And in his responsa (# 224) he goes a step further arguing that even plain, vocal music outside of a tavern would still be forbidden, with the limited dispensation for strictly religious contexts. The Tur (O.H. 560) includes this more prohibitive stance of the Rambam, which is subsequently accepted by the Bah. R. Feinstein is not convinced by how the Bah reached his conclusion, but advocates adhering to it nonetheless. He does, however, walk things back a little by saying that if is too difficult one may rely on Rambam to permit vocal music outside of a tavern, but nothing else. (He further attempts to demonstrate that even Rashi and Tosafot are in agreement with the stringent approach of the Rambam.)

When asked whether one may listen to music in the privacy of his or her own home during Sefira, R. Feinstein responded that even if one is generally lenient to rely upon Rashi and Tosafot to listen to music outside of a tavern, the severity of Sefira has to add some increased degree of stringency, which results in forbidding music even inside one’s home.

Operating on the premise that innocuous music is permissible year-round, R. Feinstein was asked to address music which either contains questionable content or emerges from a problematic source. In Iggerot Moshe (Y.D., vol. 2, #56) he ruled that it is forbidden to listen to Christian music, and that there is no leniency to perform it even for strictly professional purposes. (The severity of this ruling can be appreciated in contradistinction to his dispensation for a professional musician to play during Sefira, as recorded in O.H., vol. 3, #87.) R. Feinstein locates the prohibition to listen to “heretical” music in the following passage in about the aforementioned Elisha ben Avuya, who was given the epithet “Aher” following is apostasy:

Aher, what [was his failing]? Greek music never ceased from his mouth. (He would constantly hum Greek songs, even when he was among the Sages.) [Similarly,] they said about Aher: When he would stand [after learning] in the study hall, many heretical books [which he had been reading, would] fall from his lap (Hagiga 15b)

According to Rashi, Elisha ben Avuya’s error was that he did not adhere to the proscription against music post-Temple. However, R. Feinstein is not satisfied with this and cites the Maharsha who was puzzled by how post-Temple singing could constitute such a profound moral failure as to result in a preeminent sage’s spiritual downfall. Rather, the issue was not that he was singing just any song, but that he was singing Greek songs containing pagan content. This is a more compelling reading in that it clearly draws the line of causation from singing about heresy to eventually espousing such views. Accordingly, R. Feinstein argues that music developed by another religion—even one that is no longer practiced—is forbidden.

Nonetheless, toward the end of another responsum (Y.D., vol. 2, #111), R. Feinstein writes that to sing the tunes (niggunim) absent the lyrics would technically be permissible so long as it is not performed for the purpose of worship. (He does, however, reiterate that even inherently “kosher” music might already be forbidden under the general post-Temple ban.)

Challenges to the Iggerot

Considering R. Feinstein took a more prohibitive stance on contemporary music, there was less of the visceral pushback that could be observed in some of his more controversially lenient rulings, such as permitting artificial insemination and allowing service animals in the synagogue. Nonetheless, we can reliably count on the Ma’aneh le-Iggerot (#47) to conjure some grounds to vehemently disagree with R. Feinstein. While R. Feinstein recommended following the strictest ruling of Rambam and Bah, the Ma’aneh le-Iggerot contends that he did not go far enough, as he should have ruled that one must absolutely adhere to this standard. R. Ovadia Yosef (Yehavve Da’at, vol. 1, #45) was unswayed by the attack on R. Feinstein, and dismissively states that such a contention is not worthy of serious consideration, suggesting the Ma’aneh le-Iggerot’s argument was gratuitous.

A more thoughtful pushback, however, emerges from the reaction to R. Feinstein’s ruling against listening to pagan music. R. Shlomo Aviner (Tehumin 17, p. 365; cited in Petihat ha-Iggerot, p. 426) points out that R. Feinstein is attempting to use Maharsha’s aggadic commentary to produce a halakhic conclusion. While aggadic literature provides moral lessons and guidance, it cannot serve as a basis for a formal legal ruling. Moreover, R. Feinstein went so far as to assert that pagan music would be forbidden even if that particular religion is no longer practiced. This conclusion is not obvious, especially given the dubious Talmudic precedent that he builds his entire ruling upon.

R. Yehuda Henkin (Responsa Bnei Banim, vol. 3, #35) further contends that a more detail-oriented reading of the passage in Hagiga would produce certain exceptions that R. Feinstein did not entertain. There are three factors to consider: Aher did not just passively listen to pagan music—he actively sang it himself; he did not just sing these songs on occasion, rather “it never ceased from his mouth”; and he was likely aware of the meaning of the lyrics of the songs which would evoke heretical ideation.

R. Henkin argues that for one who listens to classical music on the radio where Christian songs are occasionally performed, if he does not comprehend the lyrics (e.g., they are in Latin or just difficult to discern) it would not run afoul of this Gemara, even if we grant R. Feinstein’s premise that the Maharsha’s reading should be dispositive.

Reflecting on the Iggerot

One interesting point that emerges from this topic is the insignificance of tunes or niggunim. R. Feinstein mitigated the music of the problematic entertainer by positing that tunes alone do not possess any inherent sanctity or status. Contrast this with an anecdote recorded in Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum’s Holy Brother: Inspiring Stories and Enchanted Tales About Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in which R. Dr. Abraham Twerski tells Reb Shlomo Carlebach:

Those melodies are not yours—they belong to the Leviyyim of the Temple. God is bringing them back to the Jewish people through you. Your melodies are so spiritually rich and exalted. What other explanation could there possibly be??? (114).

R.Feinstein’s pragmatic (and non-hasidic) approach to niggunim afforded him more flexibility vis-a-vis music composed by a problematic singer as well as pagan tunes. Moreover, R. Dr. Saul Lieberman (Greek in Jewish Palestine, p. 21; cited in Petihat ha-Iggerot, p. 427) suggests that the passage in Hagiga about Aher referred to Greek poetry, not music. This would suggest that the Talmud only objected to pagan lyrics, and not necessarily the independent tunes that would accompany them. This should be instructive for contemporary kumzitz parties and similar functions that at times will dispense with the sacred lyrics for niggunim on their own, which arguably provide no inherent religious value.

Should one wish to listen to 100% “kosher music” he ought to utilize the holiest source possible, the Torah. However, R. Feinstein (Y.D., vol. 2, #142) cites the following passage which suggests quite the opposite:

The Sages taught: One who reads a verse from Song of Songs and renders it a form of song, and one who reads verse at a banquet house, not at its [appropriate] time [but merely as a song], introduces evil to the world, as the Torah girds [itself with] sackcloth and stands before the Holy One, blessed be He, and says before Him: Master of the Universe, Your children have rendered me like a harp on which clowns play (Sanhedrin 101a).

R. Feinstein, based on Rashi’s elucidation, understands that the Gemara’s condemnation applies to the appropriation of any Biblical verse and diminishes its dignity by using it for personal entertainment purposes. The fact that so many otherwise conscientious Torah Jews appear to be in violation of this left R. Feinstein flabbergasted: –“I have no good explanation to justify their practices,” he stated. The impasse is so jarring that it led R. Asher Weiss (Responsa Minhat Asher, vol. 2, #44) to invoke “eit le-asot le-Hashem heifaru Toratekha,” that if we do not authorize this limited violation of the Torah, the alternative would be to consume non-Jewish media—something that he viewed as religiously untenable.

A final takeaway: In the responsum on the problematic musician, R. Feinstein writes that he has a hezkat kashrut, a presumption of innocence. The reason he lost that was because people had learned that he was performing at problematic venues. These were public events which could be attended by anyone, so the change in his communal standing was due to incontrovertible evidence. What becomes murkier is when we are not presented with clear proof about an individual’s conduct, but hearsay begins to spread.

When R. Feinstein was asked about a leader of a religious institution who was rumored to be violating a fundamental tenet of the Torah, he responded that one could only depose him if reliable evidence was produced: “On the basis of rumor alone we may not disqualify any person from any matter” (O.H., vol. 3, #11).

This is one of the most challenging issues that the Jewish community faces today. We are morally mandated to protect every individual from physical and psychological harm. The price of inaction and neglecting to protect victims in our community is far too high. What remains to be clarified is how R. Feinstein would navigate the many lamentable cases that do not neatly fall into the category of baseless hearsay or incontrovertible proof.

Endnote: For general sources on music in Judaism see Sefer Ashira ve-Azamra le-Hashem; R. David Stav, Sefer Bein ha-Zemanim: Tarbut, Bilui u-Penai be-Halakhah u-Makhashavah (pp. 161-201), and R. Chaim Jachter’s “Jewish Perspectives on Music.” I thank Mr. Menachem Butler for informing me about, and R. Yitzchok Oratz for providing me with, the passage in Holy Brother cited above.

Prepare ahead (next column June 27): Davening for Death / Iggerot Moshe, H.M., vol. 2, #73.

Moshe Kurtz serves as the Assistant Rabbi of Agudath Sholom in Stamford, CT, is the author of Challenging Assumptions, and hosts the Shu”T First, Ask Questions Later

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